"The Troubles" of Northern Ireland have long been based in the poorest sectors of that community. The walled-off enclaves of Catholics and Protestants are the meanest ghettos of Belfast and Derry. Meanwhile, in the (even slightly) more affluent suburbs and gentrified neighborhoods, most people in Northern Ireland live and work side by side without much thought to who is Catholic and who is Protestant. For that matter, leftish Protestants will advocate a united Irish Republic, while conservative Catholics can be found who will support continued union with Britain. What happened yesterday, when home rule returned to Northern Ireland for the first time since 2002, is another step in a process that has been moving along for a long time.
That process is much more economic than political. When Ian Paisley, the Protestant Unionist leader, said yesterday that "I believe we are starting on a road to bring us back to peace and prosperity," he's not got it exactly right. First of all, there's never been peace and prosperity in hundreds of years, ever since the English first invaded the place in the twelth century. Ireland's is the sad history of a too-weak country with a too-strong neighbor. But more importantly, the political deal-making of Mr. Paisley and Mr. Adams is not the road to Irish prosperity. It is Irish prosperity that is forcing the hard men to come out from under their rocks once and for all. Like all sectarian conflicts, nominally nationalist, religious, or what-have-you, Ireland's troubles have always been fueled by economic hardship. The fight in Northern Ireland was about who got a slice of a very meager pie. Today most people in Ireland are doing better than they ever have. Anybody who owns real estate is about a third again richer than they were just a few years ago, and the market continues to rise; there aren't enough workers for all of the work, and the main social tension in Ireland today is over immigrants from Africa and elsewhere.
Where does it all lead? To a united Ireland under the government in Dublin. The Protestants of Northern Ireland are no longer in any real danger of losing anything with reunification, which is also in the best interests of the UK. It will take a while longer. It is being accomplished by powerful economic forces, beyond anyone's control.